By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 6th Dec 2014
The storm clouds gather over Kabul, even as the two political leaders who jointly head the National Unity Government, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, start cooperating grudgingly despite their rivalry. Both turned up in Brussels on Tuesday to sign an agreement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to launch Operation Resolute Support on January 1, 2015.
This will be a NATO-led non-combat mission, in which 12,000 alliance troops will remain in Afghanistan to train and advise the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), which is combating a resurgent Taliban.
On Thursday, the two leaders participated in the London Conference, where donor countries reassured them that international funds would continue flowing to Kabul during the so-called “Transformation Decade” from 2015-2024.
Yet, the wind is shifting dramatically in Afghanistan where NATO will complete its troop drawdown this month. Underlining the new realities, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan was the only foreign head of government at the London Conference.
While Secretary of State John Kerry represented the US, other foreign delegations were relatively low key. Minister of State for External Affairs General VK Singh represented India.
Away from the conference table, nobody is sure what role Pakistan is playing on the ground. A fortnight of unrelenting Taliban strikes in heavily protected Kabul has dashed cold water on President Ghani’s hopes that reaching out directly to Pakistan’s army might cause the Taliban to be reined in.
On November 14, on his first state visit to Pakistan, President Ghani had bypassed protocol by driving down to the Pakistan Army headquarters in Rawalpindi to visit army chief, General Raheel Sharif even before meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
There, Ghani and his senior-most security managers were “briefed” on the situation along the Durand Line, which forms the border between the two countries. According to a Pakistani military statement, Ghani promised to work with Pakistan “to jointly curb the menace of terrorism.”
Three weeks earlier, Ghani had put distance between Kabul and Delhi by cancelling a request by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, for Indian weaponry. At the SAARC summit on December 4, Ghani said he would not allow “proxy war to be waged from Afghanistan, a statement welcomed by Islamabad. Analysts believe these moves were to generate goodwill with the Pakistani army.
During Karzai’s presidency, his key demand of Islamabad was to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. If that is what the Pakistan army has promised Ghani, it has spectacularly failed to deliver so far.
Over the last fortnight, the Taliban mounted a three-day assault on the massive Camp Bastion in Helmand, killing five Afghan soldiers; suicide-bombed a volleyball match in Paktika, killing 80 spectators; and staged some 10 attacks on foreigners, including one on a heavily protected guest house in Kabul, killing three South Africans. On Sunday, Kabul’s police chief was forced to resign.
These attacks have been linked with the incendiary statement by one of the Taliban’s ideological fathers, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) leader Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, soon after Ghani’s visit to Pakistan, that violence in Afghanistan was a legitimate struggle against foreign occupation.
This line was echoed by the usually moderate Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, who said the Taliban were old friends who posed no threat to Pakistan. Islamabad quickly backtracked, saying that Aziz had spoken in a “historical context”.
Whatever the cause, the Taliban’s recent spate of attacks suggests the traditional “summer offensive” has given way to an unprecedented “winter offensive”. The “summer offensive” of 2015 seems likely to be even more violent.
Northern Alliance leader, Amrullah Saleh, an influential associate of Abdullah Abdullah and the former chief of Afghanistan’s premier intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, has speculated in an op-ed written for Al Jazeera that the Taliban might no longer be obeying orders from Pakistan.
“Has Pakistan's army lost control of the Taliban? Does Pakistan want to gain more concessions from the West and from Afghans by forcing Afghanistan into an unequal treaty limiting its foreign relations and defence posture? Is there an x-factor that needs to be unpuzzled?” wrote Saleh.
Meanwhile, Pakistan continues military operations --- called Operation Zarb-e-Azb --- in North Waziristan, along the Afghan border. Washington has just released $1.1 billion to the Pakistani military for expenses incurred, according to an AFP report.
The London Conference is a follow on to the Tokyo Conference of 2012, which embodied a partnership between Afghanistan and the international community. The “Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework” was established, which spelt out global aid commitments and accountability mechanisms for the government in Kabul.
In Tokyo, the World Bank indicated that Afghanistan’s average annual fiscal gap till 2017 would be $3.3-3.9 billion dollars, depending upon its growth rate. The international community committed to providing over $16 billion through 2015.